Leading During a Pandemic: A “Right Now” Mindset

It can be tempting to dive into big strategic discussions in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. But don’t lose sight of what your stakeholders need in the moment.

“Meet your members where they are” is a common phrase in the association community. When I spoke with Beth Brooks, CAE, last week, she embodied a newfound need to take that phrase literally.

As the CEO of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians (TCEP), Brooks had become the sounding board for front-line medical workers who desperately need personal protective equipment. And helping with the problem has meant hitting the road herself. “I’m ferrying donated PPE to our doctors that I can drive to,” she says.

Right now you should be pumping out empathy, listening, communication.

The change in “business as usual” at associations as a result of COVID-19 goes well beyond dealing with events contracts, payroll, and dues renewals. It means figuring out how to communicate with members who are often too overwhelmed to even think about your association—and to play a meaningful role in their lives in a crisis. In addition to gathering what PPE the association can, TCEP has been alerting members to support that companies are providing to healthcare workers—discount car rentals, free hotel rooms—and promoting local efforts to coordinate childcare and grocery shopping.

Last week, under normal circumstances, TCEP would have hosted its annual conference. That’s been canceled, but Brooks has set aside all discussions about rescheduling. “I know a lot of associations are saying, ‘Oh, we’ll do it electronically’ or ‘We’ll do it next month’ or whatever,” she says. “We are not even talking about it. We just don’t have time to talk about that.”

That kind of shift in focus away from your familiar processes isn’t neglectful, suggests association consultant Shelly Alcorn, CAE. Indeed, she says, association leaders who won’t look beyond their familiar strategic and operational processes are burying their heads in the sand.

“Now is the time to broaden your thinking, because now it’s not just about ‘We’re going to cancel this event and reschedule it to next year.’ That’s shortsighted thinking,” Alcorn says. “That’s not where we are right now. Right now the question is, how do we rethink the systemic impact of all of these things that are coming at us and develop scenarios to respond to them?”

The time for strategic discussions about delivering value to members and customers will come soon enough. In the immediate moment, those people are looking for associations to advocate for their interests on Capitol Hill and provide whatever other supports they can in the near term. That conversation, Alcorn says, will naturally surface a deeper discussions about which services are meaningful and which ones aren’t.

“Right now you should be pumping out empathy, listening, communication,” she says. “Question every single line item that you have and why you have it and why you are asking people to pay for it. But stop thinking about ‘value.’ That’s not it. It’s life. It’s meaning. It’s what makes a difference.”

It’s also about looking at what services help your industry adapt to new ways of operating. TCEP is having extensive conversations with legislators about PPE supplies, testing availability, and pay cuts to emergency-room workers. Brooks has found herself on regular conference calls with other state and national associations, even building an ad hoc partnership with the Texas Medical Association, which happens to occupy the same building as TCEP. Through twice-daily Zoom calls with leaders and front-line workers, they’re collecting information on the fly about member needs and how to address them.

“What they’re saying changes every single day, almost every minute,” she says. “But it’s so inspiring to hear what they’re doing. We can collect what we’re hearing from members and find resources and answers for them.”

(Brankospejs/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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